Posted tagged ‘socialism’

Left field

August 12, 2015

Last year – in 2014 – there was a curious debate about the views of the French President, François Hollande, in which the President himself participated, in a manner of speaking. It was about his politics, or more particularly, about where on the continuum of the political left his views were located. In mid-2013 M Hollande had declared in an interview that he was a socialist, and that he couldn’t see that the label ‘social democrat’ was appropriate. By early 2015 that had all changed. In a press conference that was largely dominated by questions about his complicated private life, he described himself as a ‘social democrat’ and announced changes in economic policy that had many of his political allies accuse him of selling out to capitalism. Interestingly, vocal criticism of his supposed sell-out to capitalism came not just from the ideological left but also from Marine Le Pen’s Front National.

In Britain the apparent rise within the Labour Party of the ‘hard left’ Jeremy Corbyn has had commentators scramble for their dictionaries of left wing terminology to work out how to describe what he and his backers stand for. Mr Corbyn himself has been helpful, pointing observers to the 1970s, a decade during which, he thinks, the Labour Party did things worth studying now. Of course the 1970s was a decade during which the binary ideological divide between left and right defined most political commentary. On the left there were some who were more ‘pragmatic’ than others – and who was ever more pragmatic than Labour’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson? But the political tribes identified their differences by labelling some as left and everyone else as right. And this indeed was reinforced in the 1980s, with the Reagan/Thatcher coalition standing in opposition to the declining Soviet Union and the political left in the West.

After the Cold War, and in the heady days of Clinton/Blair centrist policies, such distinctions were less easy to sustain. Those who craved the politics of ideological commitment were pushed to the margins. But are we about to return to the comforts of ideology? Is Corbyn the future, rather than François Hollande and his meanderings on the political stage? Is the left about to retire from the soggy centre ground and go, well, left?

Actually, there may be a more interesting question. If Jeremy Corbyn were to get into government in Britain (and I’d say the prospects are not huge), would Britain’s ensuing socialism be of the 1970s type as he suggests? In other words, would we see the re-emergence of left wing statism? Would we have not just British Rail, but also British Leyland? Is it really true that the left – the pure left, those who say they don’t want to have their politics labelled socialist while actually reconciled to capitalism – have not found a frame of reference to express their socialism beyond the assumptions of the 1970s that a big state does everything best? And if they haven’t, how comfortable can they be in the knowledge that they share these assumptions with other economically dirigiste movements, including Ms Len Pen’s Front National?

Still, the political debate may be about to get very interesting indeed.

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So what are we to make of Cuba?

March 19, 2010

One country I have not visited – somewhat to my regret – is Cuba. And yet I always think of it as a rather familiar place. When I was at school I had that iconic poster of Che Guevara on my bedroom wall, and I kept up to date with the views and policies of Fidel Castro. You could feel there was something heroic about Cuba, in the way you couldn’t feel about Brezhnev’s Soviet Union or most other states claiming a socialist label.

Decades on, Cuba is still Cuba, the land of socialism, Havana cigars, Fidel Castro (just about), 1950s American automobiles, free healthcare, crumbling buildings – or whatever image you may have in your mind. But is it heroic? The revolution has provided education and welfare for its citizens, but also many of the trappings of a police state. And here’s something new: dissident protests, or to be more precise, protests by the wives and mothers of jailed dissidents, who march through the streets of the capital dressed in white, earning the name ‘Damas de Blanco’.

Cuba should be allowed to find its own political and economic direction. But it should also observe basic human rights, including the right of dissent. Suppressing that is not heroic, and if Cuba is to find new and lasting friends it needs to abandon those practices of Soviet era socialism.

The Labour challenge

February 15, 2009

103 years ago today – on February 15th 1906 – the modern British Labour Party formally came into being. There had been various precursors, including the Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee. But on this day, a few days after the general election of that year that produced a landslide victory for the Liberal Party and the first significant number of MPs for the Labour Representation Committee, the latter MPs met and decided to adopt the name ‘the Labour Party’, with Keir Hardy as its first leader. The Irish Labour Party was formed six years later.

The British Labour Party, which in some ways was more of a movement than a political party in its original state, adopted its constitution in 1918, and this included a statement of aims and values set out in Clause IV. This was drafted by Sidney Webb and read:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

As is well known, the original Clause IV was dropped and replaced in 2005 by a different wording that makes no reference to common ownership of anything. The new version reads:

“The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.”

The problem with such a formula is that it can mean pretty much anything and could be endorsed by most political parties, at least with just a little interpretation. And therein lies the problem for democratic socialist, or social democratic, parties everywhere: how to be distinctive, and how to make a case for being elected that is based on something more than a claim of competence.

The Labour Party in Ireland, in a recent key policy document, produced by its ‘21st Century Commission‘, set out its agenda as follows:

“Government is, or should be, about change and social progress. Government should be the instrument through which our society is changed and renewed. Through which disadvantage and injustice are corrected. Through which prosperity is protected, not just for the few but for the benefit of the community, and through which society ensures that there is opportunity for all.”

There are clear echoes in that statement of the new British Clause IV.  But beyond such aspirational values, the clear defining argument that runs through the document is about the role of government and of that state, with a recurring subtext that free markets have failed and need to be controlled. Perhaps the critical statement, on page 14 of the dcument, is:

“The Labour Party stands for a dynamic, positive role for the State working through responsive and accountable public institutions at local, national, and international levels. We insist that, in expressing the democratically determined public good, the State can be an enabling, civilising and bonding force. The State is central to the creation and distribution of wealth through the investment, development and management of the country’s assets and resources. It is also responsible for the provision of effective, high quality and accountable public services, regulation of markets for the public good and a fair taxation system.”

The challenge for all centre-left parties has for some time been to define what they actually stand for, and during the years of spectacular economic growth that proved difficult and led to well-meaning but not terribly substantive statements about community values. After the recent economic shocks there is a newly visible tendency to dust off some more statist principles and emphasise the policies of regulation and redistribution, and the occasional toying with renewed commitment to universal benefits. Current opinion polls in Ireland suggest that this may be striking a chord with the electorate.

In the longer run, however, it seems unlikely to me that a return to Clause IV-type policy statements will secure the future success of democratic socialism. Alongside the growing popularity in Ireland of the Labour Party there is also evidence of fairly widespread public hostility to the public service. Voters may be uneasy about the current administration and its policies, but that is what it is: in Ireland the beneficiary is the Labour Party, in the UK (with very similar popular sentiment on the issues themselves) it is the Conservatives. People are worried and inclined to favour change.

I believe that successful centre-left parties are a vital ingredient of a stable and democratic society. But what that means in policy or ideology terms is still far from clear. Labour Parties should not allow themselves to be distracted by the current economic turmoil; it is unlikely to lead to a popular taste for nationalisation or democratic centralism. Many parties, including the Irish Labour Party, have recognised the need to secure a modern political definition of ‘socialism’. But, I think, they haven’t found it yet.

Where are all the socialists?

August 27, 2008

Recently I was attending a gathering of some friends and colleagues, and the conversation turned to politics and ideological perspectives. Someone asked me what my politics were, and without a second thought I answered that I was a socialist. This, I have to admit, caused a certain amount of mirth amongst those present. They claimed not to be able to identify much socialism in what they thought were my known views.

I suppose some of these things depend on your definition. If you look at articles on socialism on sites such as Wikipedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will tend to see it defined as an ideological perspective (derived mainly from Marx) that places its main emphasis on the public ownership of the means of production and distribution, and others may also focus on the redistribution of wealth. In fact, socialism has splintered into a bewildering array of groups, some of them with fairly exotic views. But it is true that most people will still regard state direction and control of economic activity as they key aspect.

This seems to me to place method high above outcome – and this is perhaps one of the disheartening features of socialism. In the articles of faith of many socialists, it is not permitted to believe that socially desirable conditions could be created by any means other than public ownership and state direction. This is often due to a very strong commitment to socialist theory which is capable of rejecting facts if they do not match ideology-driven expectations. It is this, for example (and with apologies to my many friends who hold this view), that drives apparently intelligent people to cite socialist principles as a reason for redirecting funds to the wealthier classes (in the context of university fees), simply because that is what received theory seems to require.

But it seems to me that the real ideal of socialism is much more interesting: it is about taking action to create, maintain and sustain a society that is equitable and inclusive and seeks to eradicate poverty and disadvantage. In the economic, technological and cultural conditions of the 21st century it is unlikely that we can easily do all these things by adhering closely to 19th century articles of faith. The challenges are now different, and require different methodologies to tackle them.

I have always, as far back as I can remember, described myself as a socialist, and I propose to continue doing so. But I think that if we are to have a powerful sense of what socialism is and can be and if we are to make that politically influential, we have to move away from the old statist concepts that defined socialism 100 years ago or more. If we cannot do that, it is doubtful that too many people outside that die-hard circle of true believers will be interested in it any longer.

The ideology and reality of markets

July 26, 2008

For ten years, while I was Professor of Law at the University of Hull in North-East England, I lived in what is usually described as the old ‘market town’ of Beverley. Beverley does indeed have a market. The centre of the town is dominated by the old market square, going by the name of ‘Saturday Market’. And indeed today, as on every Saturday throughout the year, market stalls will have been erected and the casual shopper will be able to purchase a wide variety of goods, from fresh fruit and vegetables, through electrical and consumer good, to textiles and footwear – with lots of other things in between. People will come from the surrounding countryside, and in some respects the scene will not be that different from what it has been for hundreds of years. Markets such as this were usually established in the Middle Ages when the monarch granted the right to local noblemen (usually), so that people from something like a six-mile radius could purchase goods that would have been produced locally.

A ‘market’ in this sense (and in pretty much any other sense) is a place or an interaction where buyers and sellers of goods or services meet to agree a price for the transaction. It works best when there is ‘competition’, that is where there are several buyers and sellers, thereby assuring a reasonable rate for the exchange based on its objective value. Or put another way, a market is a distribution mechanism for goods and services, designed to ensure that the price is objectively reasonable.

As the analysis of trade became more sophisticated by the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of a market acquired more and more significance in the emerging economic theory. The basis of modern market theory was in particular expressed by the philosopher Adam Smith, in his famous book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), in which he argued that a free market was both the most efficient and also the most benign way of securing and sustaining prosperity.

In England supporters of the concept of free markets as an economic and political tool were by the 19th century styled ‘Liberals’, and in some contexts the label of ‘liberal’ still has that meaning. Indeed ‘liberal’ ideology not only pursued free market goals in economics and trade, but also in personal morality and conduct, as liberals disliked restrictions and regulations and taboos in these areas, thereby providing the bridge to what most people nowadays consider a ‘liberal’ outlook.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about markets as a form of liberalisation or even liberation. Hegel and Marx both were opposed to the free market concept – a particularly interesting critique of Adam Smith can be found in Marx’s Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (1861); although it might also be added that the concept of ‘market socialism’ emerged later in the 19th century.

By the 20th century – and the late 20th century in particular – the market had for some become a major ideology in the economics sphere. Markets were no longer just rational mechanisms for the exchange of goods and services, they were a mystical concept with opaque but unstoppable powers. The expression that you could not ‘buck markets’, which was popular in particular in the British Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and in the writings of some of the high priests of the intellectual movement underpinning Thatcherism and Reaganism (particularly F.A. von Hayek), suggested that markets were not trading or policy devices but forces of nature. The ‘market’ became the God of the capitalist West, set against the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet-style planned economy based on Marxism.

Of course all things must pass, and this particular form of market ideology did, too. And as the ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War disappeared from view after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the certainties of market ideology were also somewhat diluted.

Perhaps the early 21st century is a good time to re-assess markets. I have had a long interest in the idea and use of markets. It is arguable, for example, that you could trace the development of social policy through law by using market metaphors of supply, demand and distribution. And closer to my own current professional life, you could look at universities and education and ask whether markets can provide a useful tool for the development of policy. Furthermore, the restraint and regulation of markets is of major significance in almost all modern activities, and deserves close attention.

In other words, markets are not just locations (as in Beverley) or activities, but a market is also a metaphor for the analysis of policies, activities and conditions.

From time to time in this blog I shall develop this thinking a little further. This is a selfish activity, as I am working on a book on this general topic, and I am looking here for feedback and stimulation. So I am hoping for comments here. Maybe I also need to write a piece on plagiarism, so that I remember to give proper credit to any inspiration I may get.